Washington, D.C., instantly embraced Upshur Street Books and vice versa when the general bookstore opened in 2014. President Barack Obama and his daughters shopped there; 44 and family bought Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie, Cynthia Voigt’s Elske, and more. Upshur Street Books covers everything from poetry and politics to essay collections and cookbooks. We talk with managing partner Hannah Oliver Depp about the ways the bookstore serves the multiple needs and wants of D.C. and “why indie bookstores…exist.”
How would you describe Upshur Street Books to the uninitiated?
We’re a small store on the cornerstone block of Petworth, D.C. This neighborhood is a perfect mashup of quiet, neighborhood-oriented, culturally diverse D.C. and the tidal wave of gentrification and new business that has flooded our capital in the past decade. Our bookstore is working hard to be a physical representation of that intersection; a “third place” where you can meet whether you’re rushing home from work and need to grab a book for your kids’ reading list or killing 40 minutes waiting for a table at one of the many great restaurants on our block.
If Upshur Street Books were a religion, what would be its icons and tenets?
Obviously, our icon is an open book. Read whatever makes you happy, just keep reading.
Which was your favorite event and/or most memorable disaster?
We just had an event with George Pelecanos, who features the store in his latest novel, The Man Who Came Uptown, and pays homage to Petworth in general. Having someone who cares so much about the city focus on the neighborhood in such detail was fantastic, and we were able to partner with our local library, which is just a couple of blocks away, to reach as many people as possible. We capped off the night with drinks in our partner bar, Petworth Citizen, just next door to the bookstore. It’s the kind of literary community night that Paul Ruppert, the owner, dreamed of when opening the store.
How does the bookstore reflect the interests of your community?
Well, you’ve hit the big question right now for us. When we opened, the owner envisioned more of a traditional corner bookstore. But the neighborhood and the industry have changed dramatically over the past few years, and the store is currently pivoting to adapt. Our market wants not only a place to bring their kids to read books, but also an evolving gathering place that ties into the bar next door with literary cocktail nights, provides coffee on your morning rush, and features unique offerings of gifts and custom services. We do a lot of programming with community groups and literary organizations, and formalizing those relationships is a big part of our plan for next year. Our current focus…is changing over our inventory to reflect the diverse community we serve and finding more unique gifts for the holiday season.
What trends are you noticing among young readers?
It’s not so much a trend as why indie bookstores, and ours in particular, exist. People want that personal recommendation. It’s the No. 1 reason they come to a physical bookstore. Kids’ books featuring children who look like the children in our neighborhood schools, whether YA or a picture books, have been huge. There is a strong interest in diverse children’s literature, the sort that deals with larger cultural traumas but also runs the gamut of the everyday life of a young person: eating breakfast with family, falling in love, solving crimes in a time-traveling shoe. You know, the basics.
What are some of the bookstores’ top current handsells?
We can literally never sell enough A Is for Activist in our store! That board book could be half of our kids’ section, and I think it would still move.
Karen Schechner is the vice president of Kirkus Indie.